Important Words on Sanctification from John Piper (Part 1)

26 Aug

There has been an extremely important discussion going on recently regarding the doctrine of sanctification. What is it? What’s God’s role? What’s our role? Voddie Baucham recently updated his Facebook status with the following, urging all Christians to care about this issue:

There’s a very important debate going on right now about sanctification. Unfortunately, most Christians are not worried about it, and the overwhelming majority think it’s a waste of time (doctrine divides, etc.), however, this issue is central to the way we view the Christian life and how we preach the gospel.

John Piper was the latest to get in on this conversation. You can find the audio here. But, for my own purposes, I went ahead and typed out a transcript of the interview below [Note: it’s been slightly edited for clarity]. Echoing Voddie Baucham, I would urge all Christians to take the time to care about this very important doctrine.

David Mathis: Let’s start off with a definition of what we have in mind with that theological term sanctification.

John Piper: It’s a biblical term – it’s not just a theological term like Trinity or others. Romans 6 uses it: you’re dead to sin; this leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. And so, it’s not a word or concept imported into the Bible or drawn together from pieces from the Bible. It’s actually there.

To be sanctified is to be made holy. And that means usually being set apart as morally pure; it means real change in the Christian life. So sanctification is the process by which we become conformed to the image of Christ morally, spiritually so that what we feel, think, and do differently. It stops being selfish, worldly, God-dishonoring and becomes everything that the fruit of the Spirit passage in Galatians says.

What’s distinct about it from other doctrines like justification is that sanctification is progressive. We do not instantaneously, upon conversion, become wholly sanctified. So Paul, at the end of 1 Thessalonians, is praying that “God will sanctify you.” And then he says, “God is faithful; He will do it” – which means He’s not done yet.

And so, we pray toward it and we engage in means of grace by which we make progress in sanctification. So, in a nutshell: sanctification is the process by which the Holy Spirit, engaging our will, moves us toward holiness or conformity to Jesus Christ (or sinlessness, which we never attain in this life, but strive toward).

DM: What is the relationship between justification and sanctification. How do we distinguish it properly?

JP: Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s a beautiful statement of the “once-for-all-ness” of the nature of justification. When the Holy Spirit awakens our dead hearts to believe and simultaneously unites us through that faith to Christ, that union with Christ establishes us in God’s sight as righteous; that is, just.

So justification is the act whereby God counts us to be righteous or just or perfect or sinless in His sight because of our union with Christ: “God made Him who knew no sin in order that in Him, we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

So, justification is distinct from sanctification in that justification is an imputation and a counting of me as having a righteousness which is alien to me. It is Christ’s righteousness counted as mine.

That’s not the case with sanctification. Sanctification is not a counting of me or a treating of me or a viewing of me as righteous with an alien righteousness which belongs to Jesus. Sanctification begins instantaneously on that justification and then, I start becoming what I am.

So, I am justified – viewed in Christ – as perfectly accepted. I couldn’t be more accepted than I am. And now, sanctification gets under way. It gets under way on the basis of my acceptance through justification.

In other words, justification is by faith alone through grace alone on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone to the glory of God alone. And now begins this lifelong process of becoming – in actual practice toward my wife, my children, my church – what God has made me in Christ.

DM: What are some specific biblical texts? For example, Philippians chapter 2, verses 12-13 and chapter 3, verse 12. Can you explain these?

JP: One of the reasons those texts are so helpful is because they address the issue of action and passivity. In other words, “Is it a gift of God or is it a duty of man?” Here’s the way Paul puts it in Philippians 2:12: “As you have always obeyed so now not only as in my presence, but much more in absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

So there’s the duty dimension. That’s an address to me to engage my mind and will and make moral effort in acts of obedience. So, for example, if I find myself to be mean-spirited and impatient and unkind toward my wife, I should not be merely passive and wait for God to zap me to change this. I need to believe that he is the decisive cause, but He has now said, “Piper, make war on that in yourself; hate that about yourself and do whatever you can do to attack that in yourself. Be aggressive; work out your salvation.”

If God has saved you – and is saving you – from impatience and unkindness, work it out; take hold of it and make it happen… “for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” So the ground for doing my duty is it’s a gift.

God is there working in my willing; if I have any will to make war on my sin, that’s a gift of God. If I have any will to pursue means of grace in Word and prayer and worship and fellowship and accountability – if I have any will to do any of that, God has worked that will.

And if I make any triumphs over these attitudes, that’s a gift of God so there’s no boasting in this. Paul said, “By the grace of God, I am what I am. But his grace toward me was not in vain, but I worked harder than any of them. Nevertheless, it was not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”

So there’s the mystery of the Christian life. Sanctification involves working hard. Paul pummeled his body lest he be a castaway. He saw things rising up in his old man and put them to death with a conscious, willed effort of Holy Spirit-inspired resolve.

And when he was all done, he said, “Nevertheless, it was not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”

DM: What does Paul mean when he says the phrase, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling?” What does he mean by “with fear?”

JP: Peter O’Brien said this phrase is ordinarily related to the presence of the Almighty. When you’re in the presence of the infinitely pure, infinitely wise, infinitely powerful God, there is a fear and trembling in your life. It’s not necessarily identical with terror like you’re going to be squished like a bug, but rather it has to do with shear wonder.

So, when Paul says, “with fear and trembling,” remember, he goes on to say, “for God is the one who is right here in you present at work.” This is God the Holy Spirit in your life and you should stand in trembling wonder that you are indwelt by the creator of the universe, who is at work in you to awaken your will to do good things.

DM: And how about Philippians 3:12?

JP: I love this verse. Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained it, or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me His own.” So, in my conversion, when Christ brought me to faith, that’s a fixed, finished, unchangeable reality. And because of it, I press on to experience it in its fullness.

So, if people were to ask me, “Does all this striving you’re talking about; all this working you’re talking about; all this warfare you’re talking about – doesn’t this connote a kind of fragility to the Christian life? Like I might not make it?”

I go to this text and say, “Look, Paul says, ‘I press on.'” He’s not pressing on because Christ has not yet made him his own and he hopes with fingers crossed that someday Christ may make him his own and he will get to heaven.

It’s just the opposite! Paul says, “I press on to make it my own because Christ has made me His own.” He has done the decisive work and I am bound like a fetter to Him. And now, on that confidence, I strain forward for the prize of the upper call of God in Christ Jesus and all the perfection that will go with that someday.

[HT: JT]


One Response to “Important Words on Sanctification from John Piper (Part 1)”


  1. Important Words on Sanctification from John Piper (Part 2) | One Pilgrim's Progress - August 31, 2011

    […] Part 1, John Piper discussed the doctrine of sanctification generally, as a slow – oftentimes […]

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